Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A great place to live - if you're a kiwifruit

Mt Maunganui and suburbs from MauaoThis time last year I wrote a kind of "what I did on my hols" about Christchurch, and I'll start this year off with a similar post on Tauranga and Mt Maunganui. Those of you who know me, and who know the western Bay of Plenty, will realise that it's not exactly my kind of place, but I put my preconceptions aside as much as possible in order to learn from the contrasts between it and Wellington.

I know I was supposed to be enjoying the beach, but of course the first thing I wanted to do was see the city. Which raised the question: where is the city, exactly? Part of the problem is due to the urban form of the Tauranga district, which consists of a seemingly unplanned patchwork of subdivisions, motorways, industrial areas and malls. All that sprawl has assimilated older town and village centres, making it hard to envision what is undeniably a continuous urban area as a "city". Auckland is very similar in that regard, but at least if you gathered together all of Auckland's scattered hubs into one place you'd get a good-sized urban centre. Mentally conglomerating all of Tauranga and Mt Maunganui's non-residential areas didn't quite seem to provide the urban fabric one would expect from NZ's sixth-largest and reputedly fastest-growing urban area.

Don't get me wrong: there are parts of the region that seem to be perfectly pleasant little town centres. Downtown Tauranga has some nice pedestrianised shopping areas, with a few interesting shops and restaurants hidden among the chains, but it still feels like a much smaller provinical town. Mt Maunganui's shopping strip is a lot better than an enclosed mall, and while dining outside tended to be ruined by the continuous throb of boy racers taking the automotive equivalent of la passeggiata, at least there is a true public realm. There's another cluster of shops and cafés under the towers by Mauao itself, but it's clearly still a beach resort rather than an urban place. Where is the actual CBD?

It turns out there isn't one. Wikipedia states that "Although the population has increased dramatically, the city is proportionally underrepresented in businesses, and the CBD reflects a city of less than half the population as that of Tauranga". Why? How does the city support itself?

My first thought was based on Tauranga's reputation as a Grey Power stronghold: maybe it really does have very few workers, since the place is one big retirement home. But the latest census stats don't quite bear that out. While the proportion of people not in the workforce (35%) is slightly higher than the national average of 30% (and much higher than Wellington's 24%), it's not enough to explain the difference. I had expected Tauranga's demographics to be similar to Kapiti's, so I repeated the analysis that I did for the Wellington region, and compared Tauranga to Wellington City, Kapiti and the national average:

Age structures 2006: Wellington, Kapiti, Tauranga, NZThere's definitely something in the comparison, with more over-65s than average, and fewer 15-24 year-olds (though that's not the case at the Mount over summer!). But the 25-40 age bracket is bang on the national average, and much higher than for Kapiti. If there's no CBD, then where are they working?

Of course, the answer is obvious to anyone not as blinkeredly white-collar as me. The Port of Tauranga is the largest export port in the country, responsible for 27% of NZ's exports by sea. That, combined with tourism (over 11% of workers are in sales - the highest in the country), speculative real-estate riches and the tradespeople required to build all those McMansions and flyovers, has been enough to quadruple the population in 30 years.

I shouldn't belittle the importance of those industries: if it wasn't for all those logs and kiwifruit going through Tauranga harbour, none of the rest of us would have jobs. But I can't help being a little perturbed by what it says about New Zealand and its future. The western Bay of Plenty has a lot of people shipping stuff, building stuff and selling stuff, but where are all the people thinking of new stuff to sell and how to make it? They could all be in Auckland and Wellington, coming up with ideas that the practical people in the provinces put into action, but somehow I doubt it. We still seem to be stuck with selling low-value bulk produce, exporting logs rather than high-design furniture, and that's not a recipe for increased productivity and international competitiveness. It could be that Tauranga is a shining success story, an economy that has boomed on the back of natural advantages and down-to-earth entrepeneurship, but I think it's far from a sustainable model for the rest of New Zealand to follow.

All of which comes back to my original quest: where is the city? To put it bluntly, there isn't one. Tauranga is a combination of provincial service centre, industrial port, retirement village and beach resort, but it's not a city. That may seem a bit harsh or narrow-minded, but I believe that a city has to be more than just a big town. According to a quote from Margaret Mead, the vital thing about a city is that:
... any day in any year, there may be a fresh encounter with a new talent, a keen mind or a gifted specialist - this is essential to the life of a country. To play this role in our lives a city must have a soul - a university, a great art or music school, a cathedral or a great mosque or temple, a great laboratory or scientific center, as well as the libraries and museums and galleries that bring past and present together. A city must be a place where groups of women and men are seeking and developing the highest things they know.
With all due respect to the University of Waikato at Tauranga, I don't think the Tauranga conurbation has any of that. Without an intellectual heart, not only does a would-be city lack the urban bohemia that could give it grit, vigour and self-awareness, it lacks a vital spark of innovation and imagination. Residential density is not enough, as the faux-Queensland condos of the Mount demonstrate: you end up with all the worst aspects of poorly-designed density (lack of views, sun, visual and acoustic privacy) without the benefits of urbanity (vitality, walkability and convenient public transport). Nor is mixed use, at least not when that mixture is limited to residence and retail. And it's definitely not enough just to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of civic infrastructure, despite all the outraged ratepayers of Tauranga complaining about paying for such frivolities as an art gallery.

Tauranga may not be a lost cause: after all, Wellington was once dependent upon whaling and flax for survival. But it suggests to me that a true "city" is not like a town, only bigger: it is something qualitatively different, something that generates a life of its own beyond a reliance upon land and leisure. Urban design and Smart Growth principles are all very well, but without an urban vision and attitude, an "urban area" can never be a real city.


At 10:31 am, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met some people form Tauranga on the ferry south before Christmas and they were planning to leave Tauranga because of what they claimed were the lowest wages in New Zealand. 'Ten-dollar-an-hour Tauranga' they called it. People are apparently drawn by the lifestyle and climate, but there are very few jobs. An old friend moved there from Wellington with 20 years experience in middle management and she is selling 'household products' - Amway or something - on commision to try and make ends meet.

At 1:45 pm, January 04, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

There's a reasonable proportion of managers in Tauranga: 16.3% of the workforce, compared with 16.6% in Wellington and 17.1% for the whole country. I suspect that the "managers" category in the census covers a lot of self-employed tradespeople and farmers, which would explain the otherwise counterintuitive fact that rural areas tend to have considerably more "managers" (20-30%) than cities. WHen the more detailed census data comes out, it should be possible to break the categories down further, but I'd suspect that your friend is right: there's not much call for middle management or professionals in Tauranga.

It does surprise me that the wages are low there, given the apparent boom time and the fact that the place was plastered with "fill the skills gap" billboards. The census shows that incomes are certainly low, but I put that down to the preponderence of manual jobs rather than relatively low rates for a given position. Perhaps the "boom" has only been good for a few "Bob the Builder" types, and the workers are just happy to have a job and plenty of space to park the Holdens. Though as you say, perhaps there'll be a backlash, now that living costs have soared.

At 2:31 pm, January 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

tom, coming from the mount, i think you've hit the nail on the head.
what we have is a bunch of dormitory developments for tourists and investors.

the people who live and work there are the ones building them, servicing the builders, or servicing the tourists.

if you had to pick one street sign to represent the essence of tauranga?

"pay and display parking"

At 2:52 pm, January 05, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

> what we have is a bunch of dormitory developments for tourists and investors.

Damn right, Che. The Mount has had the physical impact of high density, but because they're empty most of the year and there are no workplaces within walking distance, you don't get the vitality or sustainability benefits of density. I kept thinking (as is my wont) of how the place could be improved through urban design or planning, but I think the core reasons for its existence mean that it could never have the sort of urban life that I so enjoy in Wellington.

A case in point: physically, the main shopping strip of the Mount (laughably called "Mt Maunganui CBD" by the street signs) is a pleasant enough low-rise shopping street, and is certainly lively. There are plenty of relatively upmarket bar/restaurants with decent design, friendly staff and a nice relationship to the street. But with the odd exception (La Barca da Francesco was a notable one), they were either chains or looked and felt like they ought to be chains. I could easily think of several dozen places in Wellington that I'd choose ahead of any one of them.

Sure, the weather was rubbish when we got back to Wellington, but I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Tall buildings! Stencil graffiti! Buses more than once an hour! People wearing black! Coffee! Sweet Mother's Kitchen! Bookshops! Museums and galleries! Weirdos! Roti!

At 4:53 pm, January 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kept thinking (as is my wont) of how the place could be improved through urban design or planning

ah. now there's the rub. the mount was often sold to us as yongsters as a paragon of planning.

the split between industrial and residential zones you see. on one side of the main road there is industry, residential on the other. and all those dormitories are designed to ensure people-friendly streets that minimise thru-traffic.

another way to look at it is the new malls in papamoa. islands of franchised shops surrounded by acres of carparks, and no feasible public transport because the dormitories are impossible to navigate with buses....

At 3:59 pm, January 08, 2007, Blogger Rich said...


* It's a big suburban sprawl with a beach on one side.

* The population are mostly elderly rednecks - look at who they elect as their MPs.

* No nightlife worth speaking of - what bars there are are typically full of aging property spivs and dumb 18 year old jocks.

* Stupid property prices.

And as you point out, precious little "knowledge work" - which is a general problem in NZ. Outside Auckland and Wellington, which places in NZ have enough decent jobs to match the aspirations of the people growing up there? (Maybe Christchurch, possibly Hamilton, Dunedin and Palmy to some extent).

Other countries manage this better - Bournemouth, England, which is in some respects a seaside lifestyle resort comparable Tauranga, has two large financial institutions.

Which is a bad thing, as essentially most of the the brighter kids will leave town at 18 and not return until they're middle aged/retired. Leaving a dumbed-down population, which explains the economics.

(I'm not being deliberately rude about manual workers, but NZ's future as a nation is not in "lifting heavy things" - China and India have billions of people who can move logs far cheaper than we can).

At 4:17 pm, January 08, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Rich: exactly! You've pretty much summarised my feelings about the place in a handful of paragraphs.

"look at who they elect as their MPs." - shudder! One of the local "landmarks" that we couldn't get away from was Burqa Bob's electorate HQ, appropriately located at the intersection of some big roads and next to a big-box shopping centre. The more time we spent there, the more Bob the Testicle made sense in that context.

"No nightlife worth speaking of - what bars there are are typically full of aging property spivs and dumb 18 year old jocks." Bang on! I would have written something like that myself, but I didn't want to be too rude. The "best" of the lot felt like somewhere between Coyote and Jet. I'm not even being a snob by lamenting the lack of upmarket Matterhorn-type bars or Citron-quality restaurants: more than anything, it's the absence of funky, grubby, independent cafes like Midnight Espresso or Fidels. Can you even begin to imagine a place like Mighty Mighty or Havana in Tauranga? In a place without a music or new media industry, without an urban art scene or large pool of well-off and well-educated professionals - hell, without even a proper university! - the nightlife scene will be dominated by (as you say) spivs and jocks.

At 11:10 pm, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Tall buildings! Stencil graffiti! Buses more than once an hour! People wearing black! Coffee! Sweet Mother's Kitchen! Bookshops! Museums and galleries! Weirdos! Roti!"

Oh, how I miss Wellington! Have you done any similar posts on Auckland?

At 8:55 am, January 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Hi anon. No, I haven't written about Auckland here. It's been several years since I last spent any time there, and nearly ten since I lived there. I hope to get time sometime this year to spend a long weekend there and do some walking around.

At 12:25 pm, January 15, 2007, Blogger Hadyn said...

I'm not going to defend Tauranga, but a word of caution. You are using the Mount and Tauranga interchangeably. They are two places separated by a harbour (until the mid eighties the Mount had its own council).

Mount Maunganui was still just a beach resort until very recently (last 10 years or so). The 90's saw the first highrise there and it was a long wait between drinks before the next one. As such the Mount "CBD" was just enough shops to service the small local population and fill the demands of the much larger summer population (this is why you should never go to the "$100 dairy" by the hot pools). The actual Mount population lived down the other end of the Mount (sort of south of Tay St). Like, real Mount people swim at Omanu not the main beach.

This kind of beach culture doesn’t lend itself naturally to hipster-chic bars, but more to bars that don’t mind people walking in with bare feet covered in sand. Good and interesting places to eat and drink (and I’m using Wellington standards for good and interesting) don’t tend to last too long as the owners have to alter their style to the baby-boomers who now live in Papamoa (which needs to be flattened and redesigned). The longest surviving fun eatery was Zucchini which was a bohemian vegetarian café, it lasted many years and I was actually shocked when it finally closed. Even Papamoa used to have interesting eateries.

In the 27 (or so) years I've lived in (or had family in) Tauranga (on the other side of the harbour), the CBD never expanded beyond its current boundaries. Extra shopping areas have taken the form of strip malls (like on Cameron Rd) or big box outlets (Fraser Cove). Having said that, apparently Greerton has a nice town centre starting up with boutique shops etc. The development of The Strand was good (no seriously) but the whole block between there and Willow St needs to be done.

There are some nice bars in Tauranga. Or rather were. Like the Mount they don’t seem to last too long. For example Harbourside was good but has now new management (cue thunder and lightning). You can still find the odd gem, like the Italian restaurant on the Strand or the place above The Usual Suspects (which may suck now, but who knows).

With regard to Tauranga’s political views I think it’s more of a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Many people voted for Bob Clarkson simply because he wasn’t Winston. They probably (hopefully) won’t do so again. It should be noted that Margret Wilson almost won the Tauranga seat two elections ago, there were numerous recounts it was that close. But Tauranga will always be a conservative seat, much like Florida in the States because of the retirement age people. And the red necks (can’t forget them).

And Marc was right about the cost of living though. House prices are high, you need to re-mortgage that expensive house in order to eat out and you have to drive everywhere (parking is still cheap though :) ). Which reminds me: Tauranga has a bus service. It doesn’t run very often (about the same as the Houghton Bay buses though) and not for very late into the evening, so I figured no one used them. Turns out they do. The teenages who caught the free bus back from the Mount on New Years knew exactly where all the bus stops were and even said things like “I catch the bus down this street all the time". Hooray for the youth.


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